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Civil War Battlefield 'Limb Pit' Reveals Work Of Combat Surgeons

Bones uncovered at the Manassas National Battlefield Park provide insights into surgery during the Civil War.
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Bies says it would have been a terrible scene. During the second Bull Run battle, he says, "Over 100,000 soldiers had trampled, shot, exploded, eaten, burned everything. And so the water was tainted, every single house (and) barn was occupied by wounded soldiers, and these surgeons had very little to work with." What they did have was a standard surgeon's kit, with a variety of saws, and maybe some chloroform to knock their patients out. Says Bies: "If you could imagine sitting with a horrific wound of your own and hearing the moans and screams and seeing a growing pile of limbs from the surgeon, and knowing that your turn was coming, I can't possibly imagine what that would have been like." 

That's one of the things the Smithsonian team is trying to illuminate from the bones and written records left by surgeons and soldiers. Many soldiers had been hit by a new kind of bullet--a soft, heavy projectile called a Minié ball. "Heavy ... and low velocity, and they really caused a lot of damage," says Doug Owsley, the museum's head physical anthropologist. He shows me one of the soldiers' bones with the kind of wound a Minié ball could cause. "You can see this right femur, high up, it's got a fracture up in the upper thigh," he says. "It's shattered, and it's a horrific fracture of that leg."

Antibiotics were unknown. Owsley says surgeons had to amputate to save lives. During the entire Civil War, they performed tens of thousands of amputations. "When you start researching that," says Owsley, "you understand what a horrible situation everybody was in." 

Owsley says the surgeons at Bull Run were skilled, though. He examined the cut ends of the bones under a microscope. They reveal tiny striations left by the saws. Owsley says they show that the surgeons sawed expertly: starting slowly to set the saw teeth, then quickly through the bone, then slowly on the way out to avoid exit damage.

Bruwelheide and Owsley say the limb pit provides a unique look at the early days of combat medicine in the U.S. The weapons of war had advanced, and doctors encountered types and numbers of wounds they'd never seen. They were labeled butchers for performing so many amputations, but they had little choice. 
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